Funny business: the novelist Miriam Toews. Photo: Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty
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Funny, defiant and furious: the tangled tale of two sisters

In Miram Toews’s new novel, the ability of literature to act as an antidote to despair is tested to the limit.

All My Puny Sorrows 
Miriam Toews
Faber & Faber, 336pp, £12.99

The Girls from Corona del Mar 
Rufi Thorpe
Hutchinson, 256pp, £14.99

“It was my father and my sister who constantly beseeched my mother and me to read more, to find succour for life in books, to soothe our aches and pains with words and more words,” remarks Yolandi (Yoli) Von Riesen, the narrator of Miriam Toews’s new novel, in which the ability of literature to act as an antidote to despair is tested to the limit.

Among the astonishing quantity of books referenced in this most bookish of fictions is Richard Holmes’s memoir Footsteps, which Yoli reads “as though somewhere in its pages are contained the directions to hell’s only exit”. The passage that particularly catches her attention is Holmes’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft: “There was something, I suppose, like a wild waterfall in the headlong, broken, plunging quality of Mary’s life.”

The description applies with eerie exactness to Yolandi’s beloved elder sister, Elfrieda, who is brilliant, beautiful and broken. Alas, it doesn’t help solve Yolandi’s urgent dilemma: how to answer Elfrieda’s request that Yoli accompany her to Switzerland, where she intends to end her life.

Suicide has become for Elfrieda a desire as compelling as the passion for music that drove her as a rebellious teenager to flee the chilly disapproval of her small Canadian Mennonite community and seek a career as a concert pianist. Now in her forties, she is a celebrity with an international career, a devoted manager and a family that is as determined to prevent her from dying as she is to succeed.

If you were to compare the sisters’ circumstances, it would be Yolandi rather than Elfrieda who might seem the more likely to succumb to depression. By contrast with Elfrieda’s elegant trajectory to private and public success, Yolandi’s life has been a muddled affair. She is large and freckled, rather than small and exquisite. Her eyelashes, unlike Elfrieda’s, are not so long that snow settles on them in winter. She is the author of a not-very-successful series of young adult novels. She has a teenage son, Will, and daughter, Nora, from two failed marriages.

What time she can spare from the exacting process of thwarting Elfrieda’s repeated suicide attempts is spent in a series of unsatisfactory love affairs. It is a life punctuated by small failures; yet through Yoli’s character runs a streak of resilient, mocking optimism that acts as a counter-charm against the urge to self-annihilation that is an ingrained family trait.

Suicide runs in the Von Riesen family. Various cousins took their own lives and Elfrieda’s and Yoli’s father, an idealistic primary school teacher, killed himself by kneeling in front of a train. These are not imagined events. In her previous novels and in an award-winning memoir of her father, Swing Low, Toews has described her childhood in a Canadian Mennonite community and her father’s suicide. Her elder sister, Marj, killed herself in 2010, having asked Miriam to help end her life.

“For me, writing is an act of survival,” Toews has said. Her novel – funny, defiant and, when it comes to the heroic in­difference of the medical staff charged with Elfrieda’s care, furious – is an unsparing anatomy of the battle between the will to live and the will to die. Elfrieda’s musical talent apparently has no power to attach her to life – on the contrary, it seems to enhance her sense of fragility (she shares with King Ludwig I’s daughter Princess Alexandra of Bavaria the conviction that she has a glass piano inside her that may break at any moment). But words represent a “mixed message of hope, reverence, defiance and eternal aloneness”. As a teenager, Elfrieda planned to scrawl “AMP”, representing the words “all my puny sorrows”, a phrase from a poem by Coleridge, on landmarks across town as an act of defiant individualism. Her penultimate act is to ask her husband to fetch her some books from the library. “Books,” thinks Yoli, “are what save us. Books are what don’t save us.”

The theme of salvation by narrative haunts Rufi Thorpe’s debut novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, a coming-of-age fiction that explores the unequal contest between human will and indifferent fate. Mia and Lorrie Ann are teenagers growing up in the 1990s in the Californian coastal hamlet of Corona del Mar. As the novel begins, Mia seems to be heading for a crash. She is 15 years old and recovering from an abortion, having lost her virginity and become pregnant in the same moment.

Lorrie Ann, by contrast, has all the virtues of a fairy-tale heroine. She is beautiful, clever, nice and – almost unprecedentedly in Corona del Mar – the child of a stable family. “In a way,” Mia reflects, “Lorrie Ann made me everything I am, for my personality took shape as an equal and opposite reaction to who she was . . .”

It is the destiny of fairy-tale heroines to suffer and there is something gleeful about the way in which Thorpe sets about heaping misfortune on Lorrie Ann. “It was,” Mia thinks, “like some bizarre postmodern rendition of Job.” From an unplanned pregnancy, which Lorrie Ann virtuously declines to terminate, there extends a grim sequence of catastrophe. While Mia flourishes, her friend suffers a series of lurid mishaps as elaborate and undeserved as the fanciful horrors of 17th-century revenge tragedy.

As in all good fairy tales, there is a slightly improbable ending that offers the possibility, if not of happiness ever after, at least of respite from misfortune. There are signs in Thorpe’s novel of a writer finding her voice: the binary structure is a trifle heavy-handed and the conclusion simplistic. Yet her depiction of female friendship is engaging and sharply observed. Seldom has Schadenfreude been more appetisingly packaged. 

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.